Monday, February 4, 2013

Just Finished Reading - The House on Diamond Hill

Too often overlooked in Southern history is the fact that some American Indians owned slaves. A few elites, like the focus of The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, the Vann family, owned large numbers of enslaved workers and to a large degree mirrored white Southern antebellum plantation life.

James Vann, the son of a white trader father and Cherokee mother inherited a great deal of wealth and capitalized on a number of opportunities that helped increase his fortune in land and slaves at the turn of the nineteenth century. Vann lived a profligate lifestyle at Diamond Hill. He abused his wives, drank to excess, and was even accursed by his neighbors of being mentally imbalanced. Vann was gunned down in 1809 by an unknown assailant as he drank at a local tavern. Having many enemies, his killer was never identified.

James Vann's son Joseph inherited much of Diamond Hill and its slave workforce. Joseph turned out to be much more responsible than his father and kept the plantation profitable. In the early 1820s, Joseph Vann had a beautiful brick Federal-style house built that showed off his wealth and high standing in the Cherokee nation. Unfortunately, Joseph Vann's enjoyment of the house would be short lived. He and other Cherokees were removed from Georgia and settled in what would become Oklahoma. Vann, however, was much better off than the majority of his fellow Cheokees. His wealth insulated him from the harsh realities of relocation that the "Trail of Tears" afforded to others. Vann became one of the richest Cherokees in Oklahoma, taking his slaves with him and purchasing a steamboat named the Lucy Walker. Vann's destiny was tied to the Lucy Walker more than he knew when he made the purchase. He and an number of the boat's passengers died in a boiler explosion on the Ohio River near New Albany, Indiana in 1844.

While the Vann family stories are certainly interesting  much of the book focuses on the enslaved workers at Diamond Hill, especially the women. Thanks to the Moravian mission, Springplace, and the copious notes that they kept on their Vann neighbors, we have an idea of what life was like on this elite Cheorkee plantation. As author Tiya Miles explains, "Diamond Hill was a place where the slave population was large enough to sustain a black community and where the dominant Indian culture held features in common with African societies. Enslaved people in this location were therefore able to develop a unique black lifeworld rooted in memories of Africa, adapted to a new indigenous American context, and insulated from the intense acculturative pressures of the white slaveholding South." Indeed, many of the slaves at Diamond Hill spoke Cherokee and English, and some - who had interaction with the Moravians - even spoke bits of German. It was truly a multicultural world away tucked in the Cherokee nation.

In The House on Diamond Hill Miles also provides a history of efforts of the area's residents to preserve and interpret the Chief Vann House, which is now administered by the state of Georgia. The story of Diamond Hill for too long only covered the Cherokee and Moravian story, but now the full history of this unique Southern plantation is told by incorporating the African American and Afro-Cherokee slaves that provided the Vanns with much of their wealth and comfort.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I give The House on Diamond Hill a 4.75. I think anyone interested in Southern history will enjoy this fantastic book and its unique topic.

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